Social Rights and Duties, Volume I (of 2) - Addresses to Ethical Societies
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Social Rights and Duties, Volume I (of 2) - Addresses to Ethical Societies


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105 Pages


The Project Gutenberg eBook, Social Rights and Duties, Volume I (of 2), by Sir Leslie Stephen This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at Title: Social Rights and Duties, Volume I (of 2) Addresses to Ethical Societies Author: Sir Leslie Stephen Release Date: May 21, 2009 [eBook #28901] Language: English Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1 ***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK SOCIAL RIGHTS AND DUTIES, VOLUME I (OF 2)*** E-text prepared by Thierry Alberto, Henry Craig, and the Project Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team ( The Ethical Library S O C I A L R I G H T S A N D D U T I E S ADDRESSES TO ETHICAL SOCIETIES By LESLIE STEPHEN IN TWO VOLUMES VOL. I. logo LONDON SWAN SONNENSCHEIN & CO., Limited NEW YORK: MACMILLAN & CO. 1896 NOTE. The following chapters are chiefly a republication of addresses delivered to the Ethical Societies of London. Some have previously appeared in the International Journal of Ethics, the National Review, and the Contemporary Review. The author has to thank the proprietors of these periodicals for their consent to the republication. L. S. CONTENTS.



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The Project Gutenberg eBook,
Social Rights and Duties, Volume
I (of 2), by Sir Leslie Stephen
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with
almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or
re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included
with this eBook or online at
Title: Social Rights and Duties, Volume I (of 2)
Addresses to Ethical Societies
Author: Sir Leslie Stephen
Release Date: May 21, 2009 [eBook #28901]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
E-text prepared by Thierry Alberto, Henry Craig,
and the Project Gutenberg Online Distributed
Proofreading Team

The Ethical Library
The following chapters are chiefly a republication of addresses delivered
to the Ethical Societies of London. Some have previously appeared in the
International Journal of Ethics, the National Review, and the
Contemporary Review. The author has to thank the proprietors of these
periodicals for their consent to the republication.
L. S.
The Aims of Ethical Societies, 1
Science and Politics, 45
The Sphere of Political Economy, 91The Morality of Competition, 133
Social Equality, 175
Ethics and the Struggle for
Existence, 221

I am about to say a few words upon the aims of this society: and I should
be sorry either to exaggerate or to depreciate our legitimate pretensions.
It would be altogether impossible to speak too strongly of the importance
of the great questions in which our membership of the society shows us
to be interested. It would, I fear, be easy enough to make an over-
estimate of the part which we can expect to play in their solution. I hold
indeed, or I should not be here, that we may be of some service at any
rate to each other. I think that anything which stimulates an active interest
in the vital problems of the day deserves the support of all thinking men;
and I propose to consider briefly some of the principles by which we
should be guided in doing whatever we can to promote such an interest.
We are told often enough that we are living in a period of important
intellectual and social revolutions. In one way we are perhaps inclined
even to state the fact a little too strongly. We suffer at times from the
common illusion that the problems of to-day are entirely new: we fancy
that nobody ever thought of them before, and that when we have solved
them, nobody will ever need to look for another solution. To ardent
reformers in all ages it seems as if the millennium must begin with their
triumph, and that their triumph will be established by a single victory. And
while some of us are thus sanguine, there are many who see in the
struggles of to-day the approach of a deluge which is to sweep away all
that once ennobled life. The believer in the old creeds, who fears that
faith is decaying, and the supernatural life fading from the world,
denounces the modern spirit as materialising and degrading. The
conscience of mankind, he thinks, has become drugged and lethargic;
our minds are fixed upon sensual pleasures, and our conduct regulated
by a blind struggle for the maximum of luxurious enjoyment. The period in
his eyes is a period of growing corruption; modern society suffers under a
complication of mortal diseases, so widely spread and deeply seated that
at present there is no hope of regeneration. The best hope is that its
decay may provide the soil in which seed may be sown of a far-distant
growth of happier augury. Such dismal forebodings are no novelty. Every
age produces its prophecies of coming woes. Nothing would be easier
than to make out a catena of testimonies from great men at every stage of
the world's history, declaring each in turn that the cup of iniquity was nowat last overflowing, and that corruption had reached so unprecedented a
step that some great catastrophe must be approaching. A man of
unusually lofty morality is, for that reason, more keenly sensitive to the
lowness of the average standard, and too easily accepts the belief that
the evils before his eyes must be in fact greater, and not, as may perhaps
be the case, only more vividly perceived, than those of the bygone ages.
A call to repentance easily takes the form of an assertion that the devil is
getting the upper hand; and we may hope that the pessimist view is only
a form of the discontent which is a necessary condition of improvement.
Anyhow, the diametrical conflict of prophecies suggests one remark
which often impresses me. We are bound to call each other by terribly
hard names. A gentleman assures me in print that I am playing the devil's
game; depriving my victims, if I have any, of all the beliefs that can make
life noble or happy, and doing my best to destroy the very first principles
of morality. Yet I meet my adversary in the flesh, and find that he treats me
not only with courtesy, but with no inconsiderable amount of sympathy.
He admits—by his actions and his argument—that I—the miserable
sophist and seducer—have not only some good impulses, but have really
something to say which deserves a careful and respectful answer. An
infidel, a century or two ago, was supposed to have forfeited all claim to
the ordinary decencies of life. Now I can say, and can say with real
satisfaction, that I do not find any difference of creed, however vast in
words, to be an obstacle to decent and even friendly treatment. I am at
times tempted to ask whether my opponent can be quite logical in being
so courteous; whether, if he is as sure as he says that I am in the devil's
service, I ought not, as a matter of duty, to be encountered with the old
dogmatism and arrogance. I shall, however, leave my friends of a
different way of thinking to settle that point for themselves. I cannot doubt
the sincerity of their courtesy, and I will hope that it is somehow
consistent with their logic. Rather I will try to meet them in a
corresponding spirit by a brief confession. I have often enough spoken
too harshly and vehemently of my antagonists. I have tried to fix upon
them too unreservedly what seemed to me the logical consequences of
their dogmas. I have condemned their attempts at a milder interpretation
of their creed as proofs of insincerity, when I ought to have done more
justice to the legitimate and lofty motives which prompted them. And I at
least am bound by my own views to admit that even the antagonist from
whose utterances I differ most widely may be an unconscious ally,
supplementing rather than contradicting my theories, and in great part
moved by aspirations which I ought to recognise even when allied with
what I take to be defective reasoning. We are all amenable to one great
influence. The vast shuttle of modern life is weaving together all races
and creeds and classes. We are no longer shut up in separate
compartments, where the mental horizon is limited by the area visible
from the parish steeple; each little section can no longer fancy, in the old
childish fashion, that its own arbitrary prejudices and dogmas are parts of
the eternal order of things; or infer that in the indefinite region beyond,
there live nothing but monsters and anthropophagi, and men whose
heads grow beneath their shoulders. The annihilation of space has made
us fellows as by a kind of mechanical compulsion; and every advance of
knowledge has increased the impossibility of taking our little church—little in comparison with mankind, be it even as great as the Catholic
Church—for the one pattern of right belief. The first effect of bringing
remote nations and classes into closer contact is often an explosion of
antipathy; but in the long run it means a development of human
sympathy. Wide, therefore, as is the opposition of opinions as to what is
the true theory of the world—as to which is the divine and which the
diabolical element—I fully believe that beneath the war of words and
dogmas there is a growth of genuine toleration, and, we must hope, of
ultimate conciliation.
This is manifest in another direction. The churches are rapidly making at
least one discovery. They are beginning to find out that their vitality
depends not upon success in theological controversy, but upon their
success in meeting certain social needs and aspirations common to all
classes. It is simply impossible for any thinking man at the present day to
take any living interest, for example, in the ancient controversies. The
"drum ecclesiastic" of the seventeenth century would sound a mere
lullaby to us. Here and there a priest or a belated dissenting minister may
amuse himself by threshing out once more the old chaff of dead and
buried dogmas. There are people who can argue gravely about baptismal
regeneration or apostolical succession. Such doctrines were once alive,
no doubt, because they represented the form in which certain still living
problems had then to present themselves. They now require to be stated
in a totally different shape, before we can even guess why they were
once so exciting, or how men could have supposed their modes of
attacking the question to be adequate. The Pope and General Booth still
condemn each other's tenets; and in case of need would, I suppose, take
down the old rusty weapons from the armoury. But each sees with equal
clearness that the real stress of battle lies elsewhere. Each tries, after his
own fashion, to give a better answer than the Socialists to the critical
problems of to-day. We ought so far to congratulate both them and
ourselves on the direction of their energies. Nay, can we not even co-
operate, and put these hopeless controversies aside? Why not agree to
differ about the questions which no one denies to be all but insoluble,
and become allies in promoting morality? Enormous social forces find
their natural channel through the churches; and if the beliefs inculcated
by the church were not, as believers assert, the ultimate cause of
progress, it is at least clear that they were not incompatible with progress.
The church, we all now admit, whether by reason of or in spite of its
dogmatic creed, was for ages one great organ of civilisation, and still
exercises an incalculable influence. Why, then, should we, who cannot
believe in the dogmas, yet fall into line with believers for practical
purposes? Churches insist verbally upon the importance of their dogma:
they are bound to do so by their logical position; but, in reality, for them,
as for us, the dogma has become in many ways a mere excrescence—a
survival of barren formulæ which do little harm to anybody. Carlyle, in his
quaint phrase, talked about the exodus from Houndsditch, but doubted
whether it were yet time to cast aside the Hebrew old clothes. They have
become threadbare and antiquated. That gives a reason to the intelligent
for abandoning them; but, also, perhaps a reason for not quarrelling with
those who still care to masquerade in them. Orthodox people have madea demand that the Board Schools should teach certain ancient doctrines
about the nature of Christ; and the demand strikes some of us as
preposterous if not hypocritical. But putting aside the audacity of asking
unbelievers to pay for such teaching, one might be tempted to ask, what
harm could it really do? Do you fancy for a moment that you can really
teach a child of ten the true meaning of the Incarnation? Can you give
him more than a string of words as meaningless as magical formulæ? I
was brought up at the most orthodox of Anglican seminaries. I learned the
Catechism, and heard lectures upon the Thirty-nine Articles. I never
found that the teaching had ever any particular effect upon my mind. As I
grew up, the obsolete exuviæ of doctrine dropped off my mind like dead
leaves from a tree. They could not get any vital hold in an atmosphere of
tolerable enlightenment. Why should we fear the attempt to instil these
fragments of decayed formulæ into the minds of children of tender age?
Might we not be certain that they would vanish of themselves? They are
superfluous, no doubt, but too futile to be of any lasting importance. I
remember that, when the first Education Act was being discussed,
mention was made of a certain Jew who not only sent his son to a
Christian school, but insisted upon his attending all the lessons. He had
paid his fees, he said, for education in the Gospels among other things,
and he meant to have his money's worth. "But your son," it was urged,
"will become a Christian." "I," he replied, "will take good care of that at
home." Was not the Jew a man of sense? Can we suppose that the
mechanical repetition of a few barren phrases will do either harm or
good? As the child develops he will, we may hope, remember his
multiplication table, and forget his fragments of the Athanasian Creed. Let
the wheat and tares be planted together, and trust to the superior vitality
of the more valuable plant. The sentiment might be expressed
sentimentally as easily as cynically. We may urge, like many sceptics of
the last century, that Christianity should be kept "for the use of the poor,"
and renounced in the esoteric creed of the educated. Or we may urge the
literary and æsthetic beauty of the old training, and wish it to be
preserved to discipline the imagination, though we may reject its value as
a historical statement of fact.
The audience which I am addressing has, I presume, made up its mind
upon such views. They come too late. It might have been a good thing,
had it been possible, to effect the transition from old to new without a
violent convulsion: good, if Christian conceptions had been slowly
developed into more simple forms; if the beautiful symbols had been
retained till they could be impregnated with a new meaning; and if the
new teaching of science and philosophy had gradually percolated into
the ancient formulæ without causing a disruption. Possibly the Protestant
Reformation was a misfortune, and Erasmus saw the truth more clearly
than Luther. I cannot go into might-have-beens. We have to deal with
facts. A conspiracy of silence is impossible about matters which have
been vehemently discussed for centuries. We have to take sides; and we
at least have agreed to take the side of the downright thinker, who will
say nothing that he does not believe, and hide nothing that he does
believe, and speak out his mind without reservation or economy and
accommodation. Indeed, as things are, any other course seems to me tobe impossible. I have spoken, for example, of General Booth. Many
people heartily admire his schemes of social reform, and have been
willing to subscribe for its support, without troubling themselves about his
theology. I will make no objection; but I confess that I could not therefore
treat that theology as either morally or intellectually respectable. It has
happened to me once or twice to listen to expositions from orators of the
Salvation Army. Some of them struck me as sincere though limited, and
others as the victims of an overweening vanity. The oratory, so far as I
could hear, consisted in stringing together an endless set of phrases
about the blood of Christ, which, if they really meant anything, meant a
doctrine as low in the intellectual scale as that of any of the objects of
missionary enterprise. The conception of the transactions between God
and man was apparently modelled upon the dealings of a petty
tradesman. The "blood of Christ" was regarded like the panacea of a
quack doctor, which will cure the sins of anybody who accepts the
prescription. For anything I can say, such a creed may be elevating—
relatively: elevating as slavery is said to have been elevating when it was
a substitute for extermination. The hymns of the Army may be better than
public-house melodies, and the excitement produced less mischievous
than that due to gin. But the best that I can wish for its adherents is, that
they should speedily reach a point at which they could perceive their
doctrines to be debasing. I hope, indeed, that they do not realise their
own meaning: but I could almost as soon join in some old pagan
ceremonies, gash my body with knives, or swing myself from a hook, as
indulge in this variety of spiritual intoxication.
There are, it is true, plenty of more refined and intellectual preachers,
whose sentiments deserve at least the respect due to tender and humane
feeling. They have found a solution, satisfactory to themselves, of the
great dilemma which presses on so many minds. A religion really to affect
the vulgar must be a superstition; to satisfy the thoughtful, it must be a
philosophy. Is it possible to contrive so to fuse the crude with the refined
as to make at least a working compromise? To me personally, and to
most of us living at the present day, the enterprise appears to be
impracticable. My own experience is, I imagine, a very common one.
When I ceased to accept the teaching of my youth, it was not so much a
process of giving up beliefs, as of discovering that I had never really
believed. The contrast between the genuine convictions which guide and
govern our conduct, and the professions which we were taught to repeat
in church, when once realised, was too glaring. One belonged to the
world of realities, and the other to the world of dreams. The orthodox
formulæ represent, no doubt, a sentiment, an attempt to symbolise
emotions which might be beautiful, or to indicate vague impressions
about the tendency of things in general; but to put them side by side with
real beliefs about facts was to reveal their flimsiness. The "I believe" of
the creed seemed to mean something quite different from the "I believe"
of politics and history and science. Later experience has only deepened
and strengthened that feeling. Kind and loving and noble-minded people
have sought to press upon me the consolations of their religion. I thank
them in all sincerity; and I feel,—why should I not admit it?—that it may be
a genuine comfort to set your melancholy to the old strain in which somany generations have embodied their sorrows and their aspirations.
And yet to me, its consolation is an invitation to reject plain facts; to seek
for refuge in a shadowy world of dreams and conjectures, which dissolve
as you try to grasp them. The doctrine offered for my acceptance cannot
be stated without qualifications and reserves and modifications, which
make it as useless as it is vague and conjectural. I may learn in time to
submit to the inevitable; I cannot drug myself with phrases which
evaporate as soon as they are exposed to a serious test. You profess to
give me the only motives of conduct; and I know that at the first demand to
define them honestly—to say precisely what you believe and why you
believe it—you will be forced to withdraw, and explain and evade, and at
last retire to the safe refuge of a mystery, which might as well be admitted
at starting. As I have read and thought, I have been more and more
impressed with the obvious explanation of these observations. How
should the beliefs be otherwise than shadowy and illusory, when their
very substance is made of doubts laboriously and ingeniously twisted
into the semblance of convictions? In one way or other that is the
characteristic mark of the theological systems of the present day. Proof is
abandoned for persuasion. The orthodox believer professed once to
prove the facts which he asserted and to show that his dogmas
expressed the truth. He now only tries to show that the alleged facts don't
matter, and that the dogmas are meaningless. Nearly two centuries ago,
for example, a deist pointed out that the writer of the Book of Daniel, like
other people, must have written after the events which he mentioned. All
the learned, down to Dr. Pusey, denounced his theory, and declared his
argument to be utterly destructive of the faith. Now an orthodox professor
will admit that the deist was perfectly right, and only tries to persuade
himself that arguments from facts are superfluous. The supposed
foundation is gone: the superstructure is not to be affected. What the
keenest disputant now seeks to show is, not that the truth of the records
can be established beyond reasonable doubt; but that no absolute
contradiction in terms is involved in supposing that they correspond more
or less roughly to something which may possibly have happened. So
long as a thing is not proved false by mathematical demonstration, I may
still continue to take it for a divine revelation, and to listen respectfully
when experienced statesmen and learned professors assure me with
perfect gravity that they can believe in Noah's flood or in the swine of
Gadara. They have an unquestionable right to believe if they please: and
they expect me to accept the facts for the sake of the doctrine. There,
unluckily, I have a similar difficulty. It is the orthodox who are the
systematic sceptics. The most famous philosophers of my youth
endeavoured to upset the deist by laying the foundation of Agnosticism,
arbitrarily tagged to an orthodox conclusion. They told me to believe a
doctrine because it was totally impossible that I should know whether it
was true or not, or indeed attach any real meaning to it whatever. The
highest altar, as Sir W. Hamilton said, was the altar to the unknown and
unknowable God. Others, seeing the inevitable tendency of such
methods, have done their best to find in that the Christian doctrine, rightly
understood, the embodiment of the highest philosophy. It is the divine
voice which speaks in our hearts, though it has caught some accretion of
human passion and superstition. The popular versions are false anddebased; the old versions of the Atonement, for example, monstrous; and
the belief in the everlasting torture of sinners, a hideous and groundless
caricature. With much that such men have said I could, of course, agree
heartily; for, indeed, it expresses the strongest feelings which have
caused religious revolt. But would it not be simpler to say, "the doctrine is
not true," than to say, "it is true, but means just the reverse of what it was
also taken to mean"? I prefer plain terms; and "without doubt he shall
perish everlastingly" seems to be an awkward way of denying the
endlessness of punishment. You cannot denounce the immorality of the
old dogmas with the infidel, and then proclaim their infinite value with the
believer. You defend the doctrine by showing that in its plain downright
sense,—the sense in which it embodied popular imaginations,—it was
false and shocking. The proposal to hold by the words evacuated of the
old meaning is a concession of the whole case to the unbeliever, and a
substitution of sentiment and aspiration for a genuine intellectual belief.
Explaining away, however dexterously and delicately, is not defending,
but at once confessing error, and encumbering yourself with all the
trammels of misleading associations. The more popular method,
therefore, at the present day is not to rationalise, but to try to outsceptic
the sceptic. We are told that we have no solid ground from reason at all,
and that even physical science is as full of contradictions as theology.
Such enterprises, conducted with whatever ingenuity, are, as I believe,
hopeless; but at least they are fundamentally and radically sceptical.
That, under whatever disguises, is the true meaning of the Catholic
argument, which is so persuasive to many. To prove the truth of
Christianity by abstract reasoning may be hopeless; but nothing is easier
than to persuade yourself to believe it, if once you will trust instinct in
place of reason, and forget that instinct proves anything and everything.
The success of such arguments with thoughtful men is simply a measure
of the spread of scepticism. The conviction that truth is unattainable is the
master argument for submitting to "authority". The "authority," in the
scientific sense of any set of men who agree upon a doctrine, varies
directly as their independence of each other. Their "authority" in the legal
sense varies as the closeness of their mutual dependence. As the
consent loses its value logically, it gains in power of coercion. And
therefore it is easy to substitute drilling for arguing, and to take up a belief
as you accept admission to a society, as a matter of taste and feeling,
with which abstract logic has nothing to do. The common dilemma—you
must be a Catholic or an atheist—means, that theology is only tenable if
you drill people into belief by a vast organisation appealing to other than
logical motives.
I do not argue these points: I only indicate what I take to be your own
conviction as well as mine. It seems to me, in fact, that the present state of
mind—if we look to men's real thoughts and actions, not to their
conventional phrases—is easily definable. It is simply a tacit recognition
that the old orthodoxy cannot be maintained either by the evidence of
facts or by philosophical argument. It has puzzled me sometimes to
understand why the churches should insist upon nailing themselves
down to the truth of their dogmas and their legendary history. Why cannot
they say frankly, what they seem to be constantly on the verge of saying—Our dogmas and our history are not true, or not "true" in the historical or
scientific sense of the word? To ask for such truth in the sphere of
theology is as pedantic as to ask for it in the sphere of poetry. Poetical
truth means, not that certain events actually happened, or that the
poetical "machinery" is to be taken as an existing fact; but that the poem
is, so to speak, the projection of truths upon the cloudland of imagination.
It reflects and gives sensuous images of truth; but it is only the Philistine
or the blockhead who can seriously ask, is it true? Some such position
seems to be really conceivable as an ultimate compromise. Put aside the
prosaic insistence upon literal matter-of-fact truth, and we may all agree
to use the same symbolism, and interpret it as we please. This seems to
me to be actually the view of many thoughtful people, though for obvious
reasons it is not often explicitly stated. One reason is, of course, the
consciousness that the great mass of mankind requires plain, tangible
motives for governing its life; and if it once be admitted that so much of
the orthodox doctrine is mere symbolism or adumbration of truths, the
admission would involve the loss of the truths so indicated. Moral
conduct, again, and moral beliefs are supposed to depend upon some
affirmation of these truths; and excellent people are naturally shy of any
open admission which may appear to throw doubt upon the ultimate
grounds of morality.
Indeed, if it could be really proved that men have to choose between
renouncing moral truths and accepting unproved theories, it might be
right—I will not argue the point—to commit intellectual suicide. If the truth
is that we are mere animals or mere automata, shall we sacrifice the truth,
or sacrifice what we have at least agreed to call our higher nature? For us
the dilemma has no force: for we do not admit the discrepancy. We
believe that morality depends upon something deeper and more
permanent than any of the dogmas that have hitherto been current in the
churches. It is a product of human nature, not of any of these
transcendental speculations or faint survivals of traditional superstitions.
Morality has grown up independently of, and often in spite of, theology.
The creeds have been good so far as they have accepted or reflected the
moral convictions; but it is an illusion to suppose that they have
generated it. They represent the dialect and the imagery by which moral
truths have been conveyed to minds at certain stages of thought; but it is
a complete inversion of the truth to suppose that the morality sprang out
of them. From this point of view we must of necessity treat the great
ethical questions independently. We cannot form a real alliance with
thinkers radically opposed to us. Divines tell us that we reject the one
possible basis of morality. To us it appears that we are strengthening it,
by severing it from a connection with doctrines arbitrary, incapable of
proof, and incapable of retaining any consistent meaning. Theologians
once believed that hell-fire was the ultimate sentence, and persecution
the absolute duty of every Christian ruler. The churches which once burnt
and exterminated are now only anxious to proclaim freedom of belief, and
to cast the blame of persecution upon their rivals. Divines have
discovered that the doctrine of hell-fire deserves all that infidels have said
of it; and a member of Dante's church was arguing the other day that hell
might on the whole be a rather pleasant place of residence. Doctrines